'Peter Pan' made Matthew Lopez cry – and fly – like a baby

Matthew Lopez. Photo by John Moore.

As a television viewer, DCPA Playwriting Fellow Matthew Lopez said, ‘Peter Pan Live!’ ‘did the thing that it was meant to do.’ Photo by John Moore.

Reaction to NBC’s nationally televised presentation of Peter Pan Live! last month was mixed, but Matthew Lopez’s response was unequivocal.

“I loved it. I was completely charmed. And I was crying like a baby,” said Lopez, the DCPA Theatre Company’s first Playwriting Fellow for the 2014-15 season. “I thought it was fantastic.”

That’s pretty impressive from one of the nation’s hottest young playwrights – a guy whose gritty, groundbreaking first play opens with a Confederate soldier having his gangrenous leg cut off in the opening scene of The Whipping Man.

Or is that just Matthew?

“Oh, I am a crier,” said Lopez, who also wrote the DCPA’s world premiere charmer The Legend of Georgia McBride. “I am not going to lie: I love to cry.”

Peter Pan holds a special place in Lopez’s second star to the right, dating back to when he was a 5-year-old kid from the Florida Panhandle. While visiting New York, his family took him to Peter Pan. It was his first play. And it was on Broadway.

“When I saw Sandy Duncan fly over the audience in the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, I fell madly in love with theatre,” Lopez said. “From that moment on, I knew theatre was the only thing I could possibly do with my life. I did not want to become a lawyer. I did not want to become an accountant. I did not want to become anything other than someone who works in theatre.”

His first job in the biz? Playing Michael Darling in a school production of Peter Pan.

Fast-forward, and you can just imagine how Lopez felt when he heard NBC would be staging a three-hour live presentation of Peter Pan on Dec. 5 starring Allison Williams and Christopher Walken … and a whole bunch of kids from Newsies.

Lopez had to record the broadcast for un-live viewing because of another commitment. He got home late, cued it up, and soon he was laughing, cheering … and bawling.

“I think a lot of this has to do with my own personal experiences with the show, but it was just so magical,” he said. “Just hearing that score again was so exciting for me. And that little kid who played Michael Darling (John Allyn) was so adorable. When he started to fly, I started laughing so loud that I woke up my fiancé. He came out from the bedroom and he was like, ‘What the hell are you watching?’

“I just pointed at the television and said, ‘Look! It’s Peter Pan Live!’ And then I re-wound it, and he was charmed by it, too.”

The waterworks really began during Distant Melody. “I was a basket case just crying on the sofa,” he said. “I was remembering my childhood. And remembering the impact that song had on me. Whenever that songs starts to play, I cannot help it. I think we all have that thing that triggers our most wonderful, Proustian memories. Peter Pan is definitely my Madeline.”

Lopez thinks watching live theatre on a television is inherently artificial because it’s typically performed in a theatre. “The direction is set up to accommodate camera angles,” he said of the Peter Pan Live! broadcast. “The set is designed to move around the guy who is holding the SteadyCam on his chest.”

That said … Who cares?

“It was just so delightful for me to see really talented people tackle this beautiful chestnut of a show at the holidays,” he said. “I have known and loved that show all my life.”

Matthew Lopez Quote

For someone who knows the show so well, it’s telling that Lopez didn’t take much notice to wholesale changes in the score.

Peter Pan Live! producers enlisted Amanda Green —  daughter of original lyricist Adolph Green — to expand and adapt the score using only carefully chosen material from the songbooks of original writers Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.  The new songs included Captain Hook’s “Vengeance” (adapted from a song in the musical Do Re Mi); Wendy’s “Only Pretend” (also adapted from the Do Re Mi score); and “A Wonderful World Without Peter,” a duel song between Hook and Peter adapted from “Something’s Always Happening On The River” from Say Darling. And the racially insensitive song “Ugg-a-Wugg” was softened.

“You know what?” Lopez said. “It didn’t even stick out to me that the music had been changed. It just all worked as a piece for me. And I can tell you, I sent the DVD to my nieces and nephews for Christmas. I bought two copies on Amazon.com that same night. And I was listening to the music on my iPhone a couple of days later.”

We asked Lopez his thoughts on some of the more widely discussed talking points coming out of the broadcast, including:

John Moore: Should NBC maybe have done this in front of a live television audience?

Matthew Lopez: I was wondering the same thing. The thing that is missing with television is the direct relationship between the performers and the audience, and I think that would have helped. I saw Peter Pan in Los Angeles just two years ago, and when Cathy Rigby flew in, the entire audience just erupted into cheers. For me, the whole reason the show exists is that moment when the Darling children start to fly. They think lovely thoughts and candy, candy, candy. And then they are told to think lovelier thoughts, and Michael thinks of Christmas and he goes zooming up into the air. For me? It doesn’t get any better than that. You can take your chandelier falling any day. Keep it. I want that little kid zooming up into the air when he thinks of Christmas. But you do lose something when it’s on television because they are doing it for you. The missing ingredient is the audience.

John Moore: So what did you think when you got to the moment when Peter asks the audience to Clap to save Tinkerbell’s life — and they flashed the Twitter hashtag #SaveTinkerbell?

Matthew Lopez: Did they? I didn’t notice. I was too busy clapping. I can’t have Tinkerbell’s death on my conscience. I was clapping like mad.

Allison Williams in 'Peter Pan Live' John Moore: I kind of liked that you could see the wires. That’s what Julie Taymor is all about: Let them see the magic. Don’t hide from it. But others disagreed.

Matthew Lopez: I agree that you have to see the wires. That was the whole point. 

John Moore: I mentioned in an earlier story that Broadway set an all-time record last year with a combined annual audience of 12.2 million last year. Peter Pan Live! was seen by 9.4 million people on one night. I can only imagine how many kids are going to grow up and talk about that night in 2014 when they saw Peter Pan Live! on TV.

Matthew Lopez: Yes, and let’s not forget: They were doing live musicals on television long before you or I were born. The only time you were ever going to see Julie Andrews in Camelot was when she appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. 

John Moore: NBC is committed to continuing the tradition. What would you like to see them take on next?

Matthew Lopez: Somewhere!

John Moore: There you go. I should tell people here that Somewhere is your play that opened last February at the Hartford Stage. That’s the story of a Puerto Rican family with show-business dreams that are threatened by displacement from their home to make room for the building of the Lincoln Center in 1959 New York. What else?

Matthew Lopez: The Legend of Georgia McBride. … The Whipping Man Live! For Christmas!

John Moore: Awesome.

Matthew Lopez: That amputation scene would be great!

John Moore: It’s been reported that NBC is considering The Music Man. Variety says NBC will also mount a live telecast of Aaron Sorkin’s military courtroom drama A Few Good Men. And Fox is about to give Grease the live treatment.

Matthew Lopez: Spring Awakening would be pretty darn cool. And A Chorus Line would be great, although you probably couldn’t get away with that on network television.

John Moore: So, overall, you seem pretty pleased.

Matthew Lopez: I think it did the thing that it was meant to do, at least in my house: It moved me. And it transported me. And it made me laugh. And it made me cry. It reminded me of being a kid. And that is a pretty rare thing.

Check out our complete photo gallery covering Matthew Lopez’s Playwriting Fellowship in Denver, above.

Part 1: Why take the Playwriting Fellowship? The hunger for new work
Part 2: Lopez to students: Be citizens. Be informed. Have opinions.
Part 3: Is sweetness a risk in the American Theatre?
Part 4: Peter Pan made Matthew Lopez cry – and fly – like a baby (today)

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